Mycorrhizae! A day in the life of a soil technician.
Updated: Oct 11
Wahkohtowin is leading the way employing new innovative technology using collaborative and synergistic approaches that work to sequester carbon and get us collectively closer to our National Carbon goals.
....."These forests, which have fundamentally influenced our national identity are merely a reflection of the value of the soil which lies beneath them. The same can be said about Indigenous peoples, who are inherently connected to the earth beneath their feet. They too reflect this nation, as rooted to place as a tree to its habitat"......
Andrew Orton, Wren Mangelli and I (Alex Layland) are in Manitouwadge, Ontario conducting forest surveys as part of the Boreal Mycorrhizal Inoculation Project. This is a 30-year study which seeks to examine the role of mycorrhizae on the health of planted forest stands. Wahkohtowin has partnered with Timmins based biotech company Mikro-Tek to carry out this project and to contribute to climate action through Indigenous land stewardship, create enhanced economic opportunities related to sensible carbon management, and for the furtherance of nature-based climate solutions.
Mycorrhizae are filamentous threads of fungi which form mutualistic relationships with the tree roots upon which they find themselves. The relationship between tree species and mycorrhizae has evolved over millions of years, helping trees extend their roots systems to greater depths and increased access to nutrients. By studying the inoculation of mycorrhizae onto tree seedlings we can better develop sustainable forest harvesting strategies and create a greater abundance of biomass which can sequester carbon dioxide and mitigate climate change.
The mycorrhizae associated with paper birch (wiigwaas/ waskway) presents itself in golden threads not that dissimilar to tobacco, we find it in our first soil pit which we are digging to classify our ecosites. Like delicate threads of luminescent saffron they twinkle in the pile of soil developing on the blue polyethylene tarp used to temporarily house our soils before we return it to the embrace of Mother Earth, it’s home.
These soils were formed by glacial processes during the last ice age when upwards of 3-kilometer-thick sheets of ice scoured much of Canada. It was ebbs and flows of ice, rock, and the movement of water which determined the biodiversity we see in our modern-day forests. These forests, which have fundamentally influenced our national identity are merely a reflection of the value of the soil which lies beneath them. The same can be said about Indigenous peoples, who are inherently connected to the earth beneath their feet. They too reflect this nation, as rooted to place as a tree to its habitat.
Guided by Dave Morris from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Mark Kean president of Mikro-Tek, we can discern an incredible amount of wisdom from what most people would simply call dirt. We find a black ribbon of charcoal present in the ochre toned soil, likely from a fire almost 200 years ago (a natural process of rebirth in the boreal forest). This relationship is personified by the attributes of the jack pine (akikaandag/ oskatátik) whose reproduction is connected directly with fire. Fire serves to melt the glues which bind the tree’s serotinous cones and enables the release of seeds. Fire also provides the most favourable conditions for germination of these seeds through the intrusion of nutrients present in wood ash, and through the elimination of species which blanket the forest floor in shadow, something the jack pine cannot tolerate. It’s simply another example of the profound connections which underlie the cycles of nature: fire, water, earth, air, the sun and the moon all acting in balance.
In our soil pits we are looking at each layer of soil, known as a horizon, and how it differs from the soils surrounding it and the bedrock beneath it. We are looking for the movement of water and oxygen in these soils which reveal themselves in splotches of red, white, yellow, and black and are known as mottles. Much like the medicine wheel these color's provide a snapshot of health and can act in diagnosing the entire forest ecosystem. The problem is that most people will never have the chance to experience the sublime beauty of soil and it is likely that the foundations of our forests will continue to be neglected, contaminated, and exploited due to lack of awareness.
As we dig, we examine almost every rock which hinders our progress. We grab at the earth, and scrutinize surrounding flora, we look across the sites topography, and think about the centuries of change which inform our experience. The science which we are conducting is carried out through an exercise of the senses. We think in terms of color and use a Munsell chart to best describe the hues, chroma, and value of our soil. We try to “ribbon” each sample by squishing our thumb and forefinger together over the soil to determine the presence of clay, silt, or sand.
Like the extrusion of play doh through a plastic press, we aim to make a long flat noodle of soil, the success of this enterprise determines the soil type. As we rhythmically rub samples in our outstretched palms to deconstruct the soils “texture” we laugh and temporarily forget about the envelop of black flies buzzing around our tender bug-bitten heads. We forget about the oppressive heat, the myriad of scratches acquired through the measuring of thousands of trees in our sample plots, and we forget about everything exterior to the forest which enshrines us. In our hands is a profound recognition that all elements of nature are connected and is confirmed by every grain flickering beneath our fingers.
Author: Alex Layland - Trent University Summer Student - Wahkohtowin Mycorrhizae Data Collection Technician